DENVER (AP) — The Colorado Legislature moved closer Thursday to a partisan showdown over granting driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally.

The GOP Senate gave preliminary approval Thursday to a bill blocking funds for the state agency that oversees driver’s licenses.

The state Department of Revenue has asked budget writers for permission to spend about $166,000 that they’ve already collected from immigrants who have paid for licenses, driving permits, and identification cards.

The program receives no state funding and is operated through user fees. Republicans have blocked the spending of the fees to sustain the program, despite Democratic complaints that the money has already been paid by the immigrants.

“It is fundamentally unfair for people who have followed the rules” and paid fees for licenses, said Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Westminster.

Republicans insisted that they should use their new majority in the Senate to block a policy they oppose.

When the Legislature voted in 2013 to allow driver’s licenses for immigrants without permission to be in the country, Republicans didn’t have the votes to stop it. This year Republicans control the state Senate by a single seat, their first Senate majority in a decade.

Republicans called it wrong to reduce backlogs for issuing licenses to the immigrants.

“When they came here, they did not come here legally. That’s what we’re talking about,” said Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud.

One of the Republican budget-writers said the GOP isn’t obligated to help implement policies passed under Democrats.

“I for one did not come here to rubber-stamp,” said Sen. Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City.

Without the funds, the department has said it may need to reduce the offices that process the licenses from five statewide to one.

Earlier this month the agency announced that license appointments for people “unable to demonstrate lawful presence” would be delayed, some until 2016.

The Senate has one more procedural vote before sending the measure to the House. The Democratic House is likely to amend the measure to get the money, setting up a partisan showdown.

One Democrat warned Senate Republicans that because the budget-writing committee is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, the license impasse could presage a prickly legislative session.

“This scares me to death,” said Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder. “I think we’re going down a dangerous path here. And two people can play this game.”

By Kristen Wyatt, AP Writer

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